The Fifth Estate screenplay by West Wing writer Josh Singer is good, in fact it is a valiant attempt to dramatise the WikiLeaks story but, for all its style and panache on the screen, the story itself lacks drama. The principal characters face no real peril: just the amorphous threat of possible arrest. It would have taken a bit more to turn this film into a genuine thriller.
The significant action in The Fifth Estate boils down to a few keystrokes on a laptop…for dramatic effect the director Bill Condon inserts scenes of a large office of many desks in a dark cloud signifying the power of the WikiLeaks organization, staffed by just two actual people Assange and Berg in the beginning (a fine metaphor at first becomes a little overdone by the end of the film).
The footage of real life slaughter and massacre used to shed light on the scale of transgressions leaked to the world, eg. the 2007 U.S. military killing of Iraqi civilians and journalists from their helicopter in Baghdad, help keep the audience engaged. Though without a good media knowledge of the incidents – illegal political killings in Kenya, Church of Scientology workings, leaked US diplomatic government documents, Julius Baer a private Swiss bank being complicit in their clients’ tax dodging, and NASA – you are unlikely to find this a comprehensive education on the issues.
Those problems aside, ‘The Fifth Estate’, defined as a group within a society that is seen as operating outside of the society’s normal groupings, is a fitting title. Although Julian Assange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) offsider and soon to be former bestie Daniel Berg (Domscheit-Berg in real life, here played by Daniel Brühl), is trying to send him a message over and over : “Julian, are you there?” That could easily have been an alternative title for this movie as one reviewer suggested.
The film doesn’t ever fully determine whether Assange is a hero or a villain, as other reviews have said it takes cues from similarly ambivalent Facebook drama The Social Network. Perhaps the fact that the film is informed in part on Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s account of his time as Assange’s partner at “the world’s most dangerous website”, it leaves us with the impression that Daniel is the good guy here concerned about the consequences of their actions (publishing unfiltered, unredacted versions of the world’s darkest secrets on line). Not surprisingly, the real Julian Assange called the film propaganda.
Assange, on the other hand, is the reckless, driven, shabby and slightly charismatic renegade with his dyed silver hair (a remnant from his childhood cult upbringing ). He insists on the truth from the world around him, yet manipulates his collaborators (who believe in the cause of WikiLeaks) for his own gain. Ultimately he sabotages friendships and working networks along the way. Only someone desperate to hide their own secrets could have invented a way to reveal those of the global governments and corporations, we are told, as a neat psychological summary for his motivation.
“He’s not a source, he’s the head of a huge media empire, accountable to no one. And we put him there,” says the Head of The UK Guardian.
This is probably the most thrilling moment of the film, the final act includes the mainstream media’s simultaneous worldwide release of those sensitive US cables.
In the end the film doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know about Assange, WikiLeaks and the media….and it does drag on. Two and a half stars.
Watch it for Cumberbatch’s finely wrought creepy performance as Assange and Laura Linney as US information security officer Sara Shaw who says “at the end of the day I’m not sure which of us history will judge more harshly” on she and Assange, while aiming to make sense of the (stolen) 250 million personal (US Government) leaked files.